- Tested: Santa Cruz SRAM RED AXS (with Reserve carbon wheel upgrade)
- From: Jungle Products
- Duration: One ride!
- Price: £8,999
Just a few days before the its launch date, the first few Santa Cruz Stigmata(s?) and Juliana Quincys landed at UK distributors, Jungle. The guys in the workshop were still putting the finishing touches to my test bike when I arrived on a filthy wet morning. It was the kind of day that despite the stunning looking new bikes waiting to be played on, we poured another coffee and delayed the inevitable.
I wasn’t just the first journalist to see a Stigmata on UK soil, I was one of the first in the UK warehouse. As I caught up with head honcho (and ride partner) Dickon, the rest of the team would stick their necks round the door for a quick shufty. Noises were made. All of them positive. In a warehouse that is jam-packed with some of the most desirable mountain bikes on the market, all eyes were on the simple lines of the Stig.
Those simple lines don’t tell the whole truth. The Stigmata has had a ground up redesign. With it comes improved clearance, clever carbon lay-up and of course, the women’s model.
In at the deep end
If you are going to review a premium frame, you may as well hang the best kit off it right? Well, I’m inclined to agree while I’m not paying. The top-of-the-range SRAM RED AXS build, with Santa Cruz carbon Reserve 700c wheels was to be mine for the day.
Dickon would be taking out the similarly drool-worthy SRAM Force AXS (as mentioned in our launch news story, this is actually a mash-up between Force and Eagle. The mech and cassette are taken from SRAM’s mountain bike groupset) build, again with Reserve wheels, this time in 650b and with chunky 2.1in tyres.
We had a bike in each colour – Dickon’s a matt green, with the “Santa Cruz” down tube logo actually being a mask, revealing raw carbon beneath. My bike was a shiny mustard – much nicer than it sounds. One of those colours that I’d almost certainly not pick from a catalogue, but loved in the flesh.
Time to go
Still the rain pounded as we saddled up on a loop local to Jungle’s warehouse in Summerbridge. I’ve long thought that a gravel bike is perfect for exploring the Yorkshire Dales. There are so many “classic” mountain bike loops in the area that I’ve grown bored of over the years… Green lanes and wide bridleways, with big views and an idyllic setting that just aren’t that interesting on a full suspension mountain bike.
Now, the warehouse happens to be at the bottom of valley, which meant only one thing. Fortunately the climb wasn’t too brutal, as I spent a few minutes getting to grips with the AXS set up and miss-shifting a couple of times. The shifters can actually be programmed to work in any sequence of button presses that you like – from sequential to mirroring a mechanical groupo.
Mine was set up as right to move down the cassette, left to move up and both together to shift the front mech. After the first five minutes it felt like second nature, and shifts were as clean, crisp and precise as you’d expect.
Square root of not a lot
As we continued climbing, my travel-stiff legs weren’t particularly enjoying the effort, but I was aware that every pedal stroke seemed to propel me a little further than I was expecting. I didn’t have the opportunity to weigh the Stigmata in this guise, but I can tell you that it weighs approximately the square root of flip all, divided by infinity.
The minuscule weight, combined with stiff carbon wheels makes for a bike that accelerates like absolutely nothing that I’ve ridden before. The featherweight Stig punches harder than a heavyweight’s haymaker. It was a theme that repeated itself through our short ride.
I found it impossible to resist the urge to get out of the saddle and stomp on the pedals… short climbs were crested before I noticed, long climbs were smashed for the first three-quarters until my lungs caught up and my leg-cheques bounced.
Climbing’s alright and all…
One of the reason’s I like a gravel bike is its efficiency when climbing and tapping out smooth miles, but it’s not why I love them. To me the making and breaking of any off-road drop bar bike is on the kind of trails that nudge you faster. There are smooth lines to be had; whether it be cutting across farm tracks to avoid potholes, pumping the bike over field-edge rollers, or bunny hopping the odd rock in the middle of pristine singletrack.
Here the Stigmata excelled. It’s lighter-than-light weight meant it initially felt a little twitchy and nervous, taking flight off the smallest kick. Some of this impression may have been down to my own “oh crap, please don’t let me be the guy that crashes the new nine-grand bike” insecurities, but I almost missed the weight of a steel frame. As I adjusted to the bike, I popped it off and over speed bumps, played on the natural trail-edge berms. The minimal weight made it feel effortless to virtually pick up the bike and place it exactly where I wanted it. Deft touches lead to precise changes of direction.
This nimbleness is the result of a little more than just light weight. I like that the Stigmata has resisted the path of becoming too relaxed geometry-wise. Much like the Salsa Warroad that we tested recently, it has deliberately retained nimble, racey handling. As a result, it might be a little less confidence-inspiring than, say, the Kona Libre DL that we also recently rode, but I think it’s probably a better bike for it. I was also interested to read that Hannah found the bike happier on the rough and steep than I did. That may be down to the 650b and wide tyre option that she was on.
I’m aware that I’m bordering on gushing here – and while I don’t mind doing so when it comes to an entry-level bike, a nearly five-figure bike has to be life-changing to justify the expenditure. In fact, it needs to wash itself after every ride, drive me and feed me for me to think about spending that much.
Before I mention my few criticisms, there are a few more “good things” though. Firstly, the frame is supremely comfortable, despite being as stiff as every other bike I’ve ridden. It is forgiving in the extreme. I also found it interesting riding the RED AXS groupset. It came close to winning me back from my usual preferred option of 1x. There wasn’t a hint of chain chatter, and once I remembered to use both chainrings (easily countered by opting for a sequential shifting option) I appreciated the close-ratio rear cassette; particularly on the road.
The Easton bars were a good balance between enough flare to be comfortable in the drops when off-road, but without placing the shifter unit at weird angles for your wrist when on the tops.
Were there any downsides other than the astronomical price though? Hmm, I can think of two. I experienced a small amount of toe-overlap on my 56cm frame with 700cx40mm tyres fitted. It was more like buzz than overlap, but it was there. In the Stig’s defence, it isn’t a rarity that I experience this – partly because I run my cleats as far back as they go.
Secondly, well, I think I prefer the colour of the Juliana Quincy, and for a remortgage I definitely want a colour that I can fall in love with…
Santa Cruz Stigmata Overall
I’m going to echo Hannah’s thoughts. I am overjoyed that I got to ride a bike this good. Actually, I’m also heartbroken that I got to ride a bike this good, as I’ll never be able to afford it. Whenever I think about the Stigmata, I begin to plan my own build… the multiple pairs of wheels that I’d run on it, the trips I’d take it on. Dangerous thoughts.
Despite my own fiscal challenges, I am genuinely pleased that there are bikes like this out there. I’m glad that manufacturers are challenging themselves; trying to build the best bike that they can do. Money is an object for most of us, but long live the money-no-object build. Well done Santa Cruz.